I brought up Jurgen Habermas recently as an aside and thought I would revisit that august personage. I was very impressed. The old warrior (82) who has probably been the secular’s west’s most profound and formidable champion has evened out quite a bit. No doubt age had something to do with it. He was the secular postmodernists’ first and most important critic. He knew what they were saying and realized the importance of their critique while lesser lights were dismissing it out of hand under the rhetorical flourish that goes something like, “You know what’s stupid? Everything I don’t understand.” As to his critique, well, the jury is still out as noted by this review and the matter of the enlightenment’s 20th century legacy.

“The central tenets of the ‘project of modernity’ are the ideals of rationality and progress which Habermas (1981) attempts to formalise as practical achievements. Yet these ideals must be put into a darker context, a context expressed by James Joyce’s remark that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” As the predecessors at the Frankfurt school in 1949 saw, and as Adorno and Horkheimer and Zygmunt Bauman (1989) powerfully narrate, the Holocaust provides a devastating critique of enlightenment legacy and thought and highlights the danger of slipping into a barbarism anticipated by Nietzchean nightmares. For example, on one level, Hitler’s regime in Germany merely refined and perfected 19th century techniques of social discipline. But, on yet another level, Hitler’s regime was a deliberate throwback to an archaic ‘society of blood’, a society of savagery and a society with a lust for domination, control and power; a society which raises further disturbing questions about the enlightenment project.”

How nice to see however, that as time went on Habermas seems to have made some peace with both postmodernists and Christians. While Wikipedia is no authority, I have yet to see these noted points disputed in more formal authoritative sites and believe them to be fairly accurate. Here are some interesting notations on his journey.

Habermas and Jacques Derrida engaged in a series of disputes beginning in the 1980s and culminating in a mutual understanding and friendship in the late 1990s that lasted until Derrida died in 2004. They originally came in contact when Habermas invited Derrida to speak at The University of Frankfurt in 1984. The next year Habermas published “Beyond a Temporalized Philosophy of Origins: Derrida” in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity in which he described Derrida’s method as being unable to provide a foundation for social critique. Derrida, citing Habermas as an example, remarked that, “those who have accused me of reducing philosophy to literature or logic to rhetoric … have visibly and carefully avoided reading me”. After Derrida’s final rebuttal in 1989 the two philosophers didn’t continue, but, as Derrida described it, groups in the academy “conducted a kind of ‘war’, in which we ourselves never took part, either personally or directly”. Then at the end of the 1990s Habermas approached Derrida at a party held at a university in the United States where they were both lecturing. They then met at Paris over dinner, and afterwards have participated in many joint projects.

Wow, the champion of modernity making some peace here with the “other” side and seeing they could at least communicate and understand the other, even if they still disagreed over key points. Interestingly enough, I wonder why Habermas even engaged Derrida if postmodernism was of little threat, interest, or a passing fad. Hmmm, makes one wonder doesn’t it.

And then this as to his dialogue with Christians:

In early 2007, Ignatius Press published a dialogue between Habermas and Roman Catholic Pontiff Pope Benedict XVI]]), entitled “The Dialectics of Secularization.”

In this debate a recent shift of Habermas became evident — in particular, his rethinking of the public role of religion. Habermas writes as a “methodological atheist,” which means that when doing philosophy or social science, he presumes nothing about particular religious beliefs. Yet while writing from this perspective his evolving position towards the role of religion in society has led him to some challenging questions, and as a result conceding some ground in his dialogue with the Pope, that would seem to have consequences which further complicate the positions he holds about a communicative rational solution to the problems of modernity.

“In an interview in 1999 Habermas stated that,”

“For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.”

Habermas now talks about the emergence of “post-secular societies” and argues that tolerance is a two-way street: secular people need to tolerate the role of religious people in the public square and vice versa.

Wow, what does this tell us about probably the most formidable living defender of the enlightenment project/modernity and about those whom have probably never read him but presume to defend the same? What does it mean for even Habermas to now acknowledge “post-secular” societies?

Wikipedia finishes with:

Habermas currently ranks as one of the most influential philosophers in the world.

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5 Responses to Habermas

  1. Burk Braun says:

    “But, on yet another level, Hitler’s regime was a deliberate throwback to an archaic ‘society of blood’, a society of savagery and a society with a lust for domination, control and power; a society which raises further disturbing questions about the enlightenment project.”

    Don't you think this makes a bit of a straw man of the enlightenment project? Please don't just gesture in this kind of argument, but make it explicitly. I think if you do make this argument explicitly, you will see that it completely falls apart, since the enlightenment project, while it did empower nationalism to some new degree, was not about throwing back at all. It was not conservative or revanchist, and matched increasing state roles with new checks and restrictions on state power.

    Anyhow, thanks for attempting to provide some ground for your views. However it doesn't look to me as though Habermas regards the enlightenment as somehow dead and gone. Nor does he seem to take postmodernism as an earthshaking critique.. more like a minor, intriguing, critique. The one point I will disagree with him on, via your quotes, is the religious engagement he seems to be slipping into. Yes, religious people deserve all civil respect as anybody else does. But religious ideas do not, rather they deserve continuing and thorough critique, even if they are used to stake personal meaning and to “take offense” from if challenged. This is the situation of Europe today, faced with a new virulent religious virus in the form of Islam. One can only hope that irrationality can be defeated by something other than another irrationality.

    Here is another brief interview.. he seems to think of the post secular society as a mixed one where religion has, empirically speaking, refused to go away per the secularization hypothesis. That doesn't justify it as better than secularity, or reasonable, or anything else. It just means that it is durable, given human nature. I wouldn't take that as an entirely optimistic viewpoint, really. One interesting element is the prospect of East Asia, which, while enjoying a rebirth of freedom to some degree and concomitant interest in religion, seems to be trending in a secular direction overall.


  2. Darrell says:


    The quote about the Holocaust and the enlightenment wasn’t mine and isn’t even the point. The point is that modernity and that project have come under withering attack (whether for good or bad—putting that aside) and even Habermas acknowledges such. That is why his project is one of “reclamation” and one of “restoring.” That is why he even refers to systems and our condition as ones of being “post.” How is that possible if postmodernism was/is a “minor” critique? The shift was major and is acknowledged as such, again, for good or ill. That is simply a fact and you have offered nothing to suggest otherwise. You may have a personal opinion that it was minor, but that opinion is not shared by Habermas or the academic community.

    Habermas’ seminal work was The Theory of Communicative Action (http://www.hepg.org/her/abstract/63). One of the reasons he wrote the book was to address the challenge of postmodernism:

    “Finally, TCA does not dismiss but instead reorients some elements from the project of traditional modernity, such as reason, subject, and emancipation — elements that many postmodern intellectuals have challenged and even rejected. Habermas thus offers his theory as an alternative path to overcome this crisis…”

    The last time I checked, addressing something as a “crisis” isn’t normally because it is a “minor” critique.


    “In TCA, Habermas sought to offer normative procedures based on dialogue in response to the vacuum created by the head-on collision of modernity and postmodernity.”

    Is a “head-on collision” the way most people refer to something as “minor?”

    “This collection of essays confirms once again the importance of TCA as one of the philosophical works that has received widespread attention in a variety of disciplines due to the role it has played in the debate around the crisis of modernity.”

    There is that word “crisis” again. So we have you using the word “minor” and the reviewer using the word “crisis.” You will forgive me if I go with the reviewer here.

    So back to the point. You must first deal with the critique brought by the postmodernists before you can simply assert or speak as if that historical (and current) debate never existed or that is was minor.

    For instance: No one can any longer simply assert empiricism or scientism without situating those views within that debate and telling us how it overcomes or states thing differently because of that debate. And no one can jump to the question of “Well, then how do we know who’s narrative is right or correct?” without first showing that they understand what brought us to thinking about narratives in the first place.


  3. Burk Braun says:

    “The opposition to modernity can be characterized as a rejection of subject-centered reason in favor of irrationality; a denial of an objective world that is external and knowable; and a refusal of any attempt to universalize values, knowledge, or agreements. In the course of their lectures, Habermas addresses such movements of French poststructuralists as Lyotard’s (1999) announcement of the end of grand meta-narratives like science, Derrida’s (1967) dissolution of the rational subject, and Foucault’s (1995) exhaustion of emancipatory power. All of these authors argue that the normative criteria that once organized modern society and guided educational systems no longer prevail. “

    Well, any movement that makes the first two claims is not a major critique.. it is idiotic. Since Habermas was on the continent, I am sure he felt called upon to address the issues. But he hardly recognized them as transformative or sweeping away all that came before.. just another attempt to justify irrationality, in a very long line of such attempts, such as romanticism before, and religion perennially. It is nothing new. Defend irrationality if you like, you will not get far using reason to do so.

    ” (TCA), a work that became a landmark in the dialogic turn of the social and political sciences — the scientific recognition of the increasingly important role that dialogue plays in current societies … “

    Heavens! Who knew? This is far from earthshaking.

    “Pushing against the hermeneutic understanding of language, Habermas’ pragmatism recovers the agency of the subject so that language becomes a means that the subject uses to coordinate actions and to mediate the way in which people experience reality.”

    Whew! Crisis averted, I would say!

    “When someone participates in a dialogue with the intention of arriving at truth and oriented toward understanding, this person holds a validity claim. On the other hand, a person that holds a power claim will intend to impose his or her own view and will not be open to any challenge. “

    Gosh- how novel can one get? This is truly pathbreaking!

    “Habermas’ work refuses both authoritarian (and even violent) modern values (e.g., values coined during the French Revolution — liberté, égalité and fraternité) and the postmodern dissolution of any kind of value that leaves people vulnerable to the interests of power or money.”

    Lastly, I have to say that this commentary is non-sensical. If one values money, one has a value. It may not be a value you agree with, but it is a value. It also may be socially submerged and implicit, not recognized for the damage it does, etc… all that us true, but it remains a value. Indeed one might make the point that as soon as values become explicit, their power is sort of lost. Only as long as a culture shares a value implicitly is it maximally powerful.

    Then there is the issue of equating liberte, egalite, etc. with authoritarianism.. that is not at all a defensible connection. Only the French or the communists could create such alchemy. Only when one forces excess egalite upon humans does one invoke necessarily authoritarianism, as I recently quoted Hume, and as we learn from experience. Very well- that didn't work. But the ideals are not otherwise authoritarian- quite the opposite, let alone violent.

    And if postmodernism dissolved all values, it would have dissolved the value of money as well. But somehow, money retains its value and we keep on grubbing for more of it. Why is that? Perhaps it is because the postmodern turn didn't actually accomplish anything significant.


  4. Darrell says:


    Thank you for those serious, reflective and well thought out arguments. I’m sure your alma mater would be proud.

    So, because you have nothing else, we get the standard fundamentalist response of, “You know what’s stupid? Everything I don’t understand.”

    Here is how weak your position is. I actually give you a supporter of Habermas, someone who shares his advocacy of the enlightenment project but who still recognizes the shift and the importance of postmodernism. If you can’t even bring yourself to recognize that historical fact, then you have no reason being in a serious conversation of this type, period.

    The writer, again an advocate, says one “could” (not must or should) characterize postmodernism as “irrational” but as everyone knows who knows something about the debate—it is the “rational” as understood by and promoted by modernity that it rejects, not reason or rationality per se. So again, because you know nothing about the issue at hand (although you feel comfortable pontificating about it) you again miss the point.

    But please keep writing; this is entertaining if nothing else.


  5. Burk Braun says:

    From the Stanford discussion…

    “Instead, they emphasize continuity, narrative, and difference within continuity, rather than counter-strategies and discursive gaps. Neither side, however, suggests that postmodernism is an attack upon modernity or a complete departure from it. Rather, its differences lie within modernity itself, and postmodernism is a continuation of modern thinking in another mode.

    Finally, I have included a summary of Habermas's critique of postmodernism, representing the main lines of discussion on both sides of the Atlantic. Habermas argues that postmodernism contradicts itself through self-reference, and notes that postmodernists presuppose concepts they otherwise seek to undermine, e.g., freedom, subjectivity, or creativity.”

    This does not sound earthshaking by any means.

    You may be trapped in a narrative of progress, where every “ism” that comes along is better than the one before, especially if it names itself as the successor and critiquer. But sometimes, progress doesn't happen, and it can take a long time to decide what did happen.


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